Section 9: Understanding Run-time Environment Representation and Control




The Structure of Environments

In Algol-like languages like Pascal, Algol W, and C/C++, all of the environments that exist at any point during a computation can be collectively represented using a stack. This representation for environments is particularly advantageous because the environment stack can be implemented as an elaboration of the control stack included in the architecture of a modern computer to support procedure calls.

Algol-like languages are almost always compiled to machine code instead of interpreted like LC and Jam. Nevertheless, during program execution, the compiled machine code must perform all of the same operations on program data structures as interpreted code. The major difference between the two approaches is that a compiler typically has the opportunity to perform far more program analysis enabling it to precompute quantities that are computed by an interpreter during program execution.

Almost all modern machines provide a control stack to store the return addresses of procedure calls. In addition, other context information (such as the contents of registers that must be restored by the called procedure) is typically saved with the return address in a frame on the control stack. To return, the called procedure pops the current ("top") frame off the stack, restores the saved context information (typically the contents of registers that by convention must be preserved across procedure calls) and jumps to the specified return address. The popping of the "top" stack frame off the stack restores the stack to the form it had before the call (although some of the bindings for local variables stored in the stack may have changed).

Some machines also pass argument values to procedures in the stack. The argument values are pushed on the stack along with the return address and the saved context information. Another common convention is to pass arguments (assuming the number is small) in registers. The result returned by a procedure is typically returned in a register because the stack frame associated with the call is deallocated on return. (Another possible convention is to store the return value in a designated location in the calling stack frame.)

Now let us relate the stack representation of environments to our understanding of the evaluation of programming languages with lexical scoping, i.e., the (recursive) let and lambda constructs. We have discussed lexical scope in the context of mostly functional languages based on the lambda-calculus, but exactly the same lexical constructs are present in Algol-like languages. In Algol-like language, a rec-let is called a block and a lambda (which must occur as a rhs of a definition introduced in a block [rec-let definition]) is called a procedure declaration.

In a stack-based implementation of a lexically-scoped language, a new environment is constructed (the extend-env process in our LC interpreter) to evaluate the body of a let or a lambda application by allocating a new frame called an activation record on the control stack. The activation record contains:

In this representation, an environment consists of a linked list of activation records; the link field connecting this list static link in each record. The first record in the sequence gives the local bindings (static distance 0), the second record gives the bindings at static distance 1, and so forth. The length of this list is simply the lexical nesting level of the body of the let form or lambda application being evaluated.

For let invocations (regardless of whether let is recursive)

(let ([x1 e1] ... [xn en]) E)

and raw lambda applications

((lambda (x1 ... xn) E) e1 ... en),

the static link and dynamic link in the new activation record both point to the same place, namely the preceding activation record on the stack (the activation record for the enclosing let form or lambda application.

For a function application

(f e1 ... en)

the static link in the new activation points to the activation record in the static chain corresponding the static distance between the application site and the definition of f. For a simple recursive function call (e.g., the recursive call in the usual definition of factorial), this static link is identical to the static link in the calling activation record (the preceding activation record on the stack).

In Algol-like languages, the only closures are functions that are passed as arguments to other functions. These closures are represented by a pair of pointers. One pointer points to a representation of the the function consisting of a record with the code for the function (or a pointer it) and a template describing the format of its activation record. The other pointer is the static link to be stored in the activation record for the closure when it is invoked (the saved environment for the closure).

In Algol-like languages, closures can only be passed as function arguments. As a result, the activation record identified by the static link stored in the closure is always available on the stack when the closure in invoked. When that activation is finally freed, the corresponding closure is guaranteed to be inaccessible. (Since C/C++ has no nested blocks or procedure definitions, closures degenerate to function pointers.)

The stack representation of environments breaks if a closure can be invoked after the activation record to which it points (through its static link) is deallocated ("popped"). The activation record no longer exists and the storage it occupied may have been reused. If the closure code tries to refer to a variable in the deallocated record, it retrieves corrupt data. Algol-like languages restrict the usage of closures to prevent this problem from occurring. (In C/C++ the same problem can arise if a data structure points to an object on the stack. Unfortunately, C/C++ does nothing to prevent the catastrophe that occurs if the activation record containing the object is deallocated while the reference still exists.)

In the absence of tail-call optimization which converts procedure calls to jumps, every procedure call allocates a new stack frame. Hence, a recursive procedure may allocate a large number of stack frames. The standard definition of the factorial function, for example, allocates 1001 frames to evaluate 1000! In this case, all of the activation records for invocations of factorial have the same static link.

Programs written in "advanced" languages like Scheme, ML, Jam, and LC can obviously be restricted to accommodate the stack representation of environments by prohibiting closures from being returned as values or stored in data structures. But this restriction reduces these advanced language to Algol with a garbage-collected heap. To accommodate general closures, two implementation strategies are widely used.

The first strategy is to abandon the stack discipline for managing activation records by allocating activation records in the heap and relying on garbage collection to reclaim the storage occupied by activation records. This approach does not use the control stack mechanism provided by the underlying computer architecture.

The second strategy uses a hybrid representation scheme for environments that supplements the stack representation with information stored in the heap. The critical flaw in the stack implementation is that it destroys variables when the evaluation of the corresponding lambda returns. If such variables are stored in the heap and the closure knows how to find them, then the static link stored in the closure representation is unnecessary: all lookups that would have followed the static chain simply access the appropriate variables in the heap. Such an implementation must identify the set of variables that occur free in each lambda-expression and force them to be allocated on the heap (adding a level of indirection to the access protocol). The activation records that would have contained these variables now contain pointers to them (located in the heap) instead. Fortunately, the "closure analysis" required to determine which variables must be heap allocated is easy for a compiler to do.

In the hybrid strategy for supporting closures, the activation record template used to represent a closure must include a pointer field for each free variable in the closure. When a lambda-expression is evaluated, an activation record template is allocated and the values of the pointers to free variables are copied from the relevant activation records on stack.

It is possible to build a good language implementation using either strategy. The hybrid scheme adds a level of indirection to some variable accesses (ordinary lookups of heap allocated variables) but reduces it in others (free variable lookups from within closure bodies). Overall, the hybrid scheme has a modest advantage because it manages memory allocation for activation records more efficiently (through memory reuse and less fragmentation). In addition, the hybrid scheme tends to recover more free memory during garbage collection because it only retains the variable bindings that actually appear in closure bodies, while the brute force heap allocation scheme retains all bindings in the activation records accessible to closures.

In the course of an computation, an exceptional condition may be encountered that requires abandoning a subcomputation. If that subcomputation has a large number of associated stack frames, the "bubbling" action require to pass a special value back up the call chain is time-consuming and awkward to program. What we want is a construct that lets us label a selected stack frame as a recovery point and return a value directly to that frame (just as if the next stack frame had returned normally). The "direct return" operation deallocates all of the stack frames from the current frame back to the recovery frame; this can be done simply by changing the contents of the register serving as the stack pointer. In addition, it places the return value in the standard place (usually a register) in determined by the procedure calling conventions.

Program Exception Facilities

In the simple stack representation of environments described above, the only two control operations are function invocation/block entry and function return/block exit. What if want to return a value directly to an activation record many layers above the activation record identified by the dynamic link? In a vanilla Algol-like language, we cannot do this. We must ``bubble'' the value up through intervening stack frames (via return operations in each context) until we get to the target context.

We need a more general control construct than function return to jump back through multiple stack frames as a single operation. An exception facility like catch/throw in Java is such a construct. Throwing an exception unwinds the stack (following the dynamic chain) until a matching catch operation is found. The matching catch can then extract a value embedded in the exception object. A naive implementation of the throw operation literally follows the dynamic chain and performs the requisite tests. A more sophisticated implemented includes a catch link in each frame pointing the nearest frame on the dynamic chain with an attached catch handler. Then only catch links need to be followed. An even more sophisticated implementation (which works for a simple exception system) maintains a global table of the matching activation record address for each possible exception. (In Java, the appropriate design for this table is an interesting problem because exception matching is hierarchical, catch construction may include finally clauses that must be executed regardless of whether any of the catch clauses match, and programs can be dynamically extended during execution!)

The Scheme letcc Construct

Standard Scheme does not include an exception facility because it includes a significantly more powerful control operator called letcc. (R4RS Scheme uses a syntactic variant of letcc called call/cc.) Here are some examples of the behavior of letcc:

In general, when a letcc expression is evaluated, it turns its current context (as in, ``complete textual context'') into a procedural object. This procedural object is also known as a continuation object. When a continuation object is applied, it forces the evaluator to remove the current evaluation context and to re-create the context of the original letcc expression, filled with the value of its argument. Like procedures, continuation objects are first-class values, which means they can be stored in data structures or tested by predicates.

In essence, letcc takes the current activation record and program counter at the point of invoking letcc and encapsulates them as a procedure waiting for a value to be returned. The body of the letcc is evaluated in the current environment extended by the binding of the letcc continuation name to the encapsulated procedure -- just as the body of a conventional let would be evaluated in an environment extending by the bindings specified in the definitions at the head of the let.

Now we understand the semantics of letcc, but how do we use it to write programs? We need to also understand its pragmatics. For instance, letcc can be used for exception handling.


Let us write a procedure, PiHelp, that computes the product of a list of digits. The data definition looks like this:

lod ::= null | (cons [0-9] lod)

Our procedure might look like this:

(define PiHelp
  (lambda (l)
      ((null? l) 1)
      (else (* (car l) (PiHelp (cdr l)))))))

However, suppose it is possible that we can get an invalid digit (in the range [a-f]); if we do, we want the result of invoking PiHelp to be false. We can add the following clause within the cond statement,

      ((bad? (car l)) (Xit #f))

where Xit is some unused identifier.

We use the following recipe for constructing such programs:

  • From the data description, recognize the exceptional data.
  • In the corresponding code, add the call (Xit V) (where V represents the value to be returned in an exceptional situation) where Xit is some new identifier.
  • Bind Xit by making it a parameter in the argument list to the procedure.
  • Change all calls to that procedure to reflect the new arity. Since we don't know what Xit, we simply pass it along at all these call sites.
  • Write a wrapper function to the desired procedure which takes the desired number of arguments. For instance,
        (define Pi
          (lambda (l)
            (letcc Abort (PiHelp l Abort))))

If we pass this new procedure exceptional data, we get

    (Pi '(1 2 b))
==> (letcc Abort (PiHelp '(1 2 b) XXX))
==> (letcc Abort (* 1 (*2 (PiHelp #f))))
==> #f

as desired.


  • Instead of creating a separate procedure PiHelp, could we have written (define Pi (letcc Xit ...))?
  • Along similar lines, could we have written (define Pi (lambda ... (letcc Xit ...))) instead?
  • Could we have hidden the code for PiHelp inside that of Pi using local?
  • If we did this, would we still need to pass the continuation around?

Modeling Simple Control Constructs

There are numerous control constructs that we can add to LC. Some of these are:

Here is the core of an interpreter that implements # and raise. This version of # takes a body and a handler, as outlined above. The handler takes one argument, which is the value ``thrown'' by raise.

(define MEval/ec
  (lambda (M env Exit)
      ((raise? M)
	(Exit (MEval/ec (raise-expr M) env Exit)))
      ((#? M)
	((letcc new-Exit
	   (lambda ()
	     (MEval/ec (#-body M) env
	       (lambda (raised-value)
		 (new-Exit (lambda ()
			       (MEval/ec (#-handler M) env Exit)
			       raised-value Exit))))))))))))

(Note that all calls to the former MEval will now have to call MEval/ec instead, passing on the Exit handler unchanged; only # installs new handlers. MApply/ec is similarly modified.)


At this point, we will conclude our study of meta-interpreters. We have thus far covered the following:

It would be worthwhile to note in passing some of the topics that we did not cover but which could be studied with the same methodology:

Back to course website